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jonah, god, and our capacity to change

09/25/2023 04:35:55 PM


Rabbi Dan Feder

Jonah, God, and Our Capacity to Change
Sermon Yom Kippur 5784
September 25, 2023

One of the benefits of being part of a religious community is that we are able to tap into a wisdom tradition, and during uncertain times, when we may feel existential dread and the world itself feels threatened, we can take comfort in the experiences of our ancestors.

Our Bible has lessons for us both in terms of the human response to crisis and despair, and, perhaps it’s surprising to learn, to God's response to crisis and despair as well. And when we look closely, we see that both humans and God show a remarkable ability to change and grow, as well as express a hope for the future. On Yom Kippur especially, this message bears exploration.

By looking at the prophet Jonah, whose story we’ll be reading in its entirety at our afternoon healing service, we see a model of a messenger of God who fails the tests of both empathy and faith, and perhaps even more significantly, fails in demonstrating the capacity to change. 

And also somewhat surprising, given the various depictions of God in our Torah, it is God who shows not just a willingness and ability to change, but also a belief in the ability of human beings to change. In a selfie world, like the one we’re currently living in, Jonah, who never learns to transcend the self, would fit right in. But that’s not the lesson I want us to take from the story. Rather, I see a different and very powerful conclusion to Jonah’s tale: if God can change, so can we. And today, on this holiest of days, we are reminded that it is never too late. 

The Book of Jonah consists of just one verse of prophecy. The rest of the book, which in total is only four short chapters, is the story of Jonah son of Amittai, which is a pun on the Hebrew word emet, meaning truth. Why this pun on his name? Because Jonah the biblical character is basically a metaphor for having a closed mind and only embracing one truth—his own. His heart and mind are closed off from other truths.

The Book of Jonah is the story of a man who was supposed to leave Israel to bring the word of God to the people of Nineveh. Now, this was not like someone from Burlingame being asked to travel to Woodside, or even Canada, to bring the word of God to an unsuspecting, but ideologically similar, people.

Nineveh was a major city in Assyria, a sworn enemy of Israel, so Jonah had no desire to save its people. They weren’t his people or people he saw as kindred spirits. The ancient city of Nineveh was located in the area of present-day Mosul, in Iraq. The leadership at that time in Assyria was no more friendly to Israel than its modern leadership is today. While other prophets preached to the people of Israel, Jonah was not so lucky, and he did everything possible to avoid doing what God instructed—including evading God by fleeing on a boat, which ended up with him being swallowed by a whale. 

But there’s another interesting twist in Jonah’s story. While other biblical prophets were reluctant to spread the word of God, because they feared that God would punish those who did not repent, Jonah had a different fear. He was afraid that the people of Nineveh would repent, that God would accept their repentance, and Jonah didn’t think they deserved it.

From the beginning of the story, Jonah was a man apart. The Ninevites were not his people. Jonah’s whole outlook is they behaved badly, so they should be punished. It doesn’t matter to Jonah that the Ninevites fasted and the king put on sackcloth and sat in ashes. Jonah can’t accept their repentance. He can’t reconcile that they repented, and he stands in judgment. Jonah adheres to a strict justice model. But that’s not the world God created and that’s not the world we inherited and want. 

Biblical scholar Judy Klitsner’s book, titled Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other, offers new insights into both God’s and humanity’s ability to grow and change. Her insights into Jonah come from a thoughtful contrast with the Noah story in the Book of Genesis.  

The two stories are both about mass destruction—large sinful populations under threat because of their sinful deeds. In both stories, there is lots and lots of water, with boats featuring centrally, and in both stories animals and human beings share the same fate. Both stories feature a slumbering prophet. And neither story is about Jews. Noah is not a jew, and the Jonah story centers on gentiles living on the far end of the earth, and God’s concern about these people. It is probably no coincidence that a dove, in Hebrew yonah, plays an important role in the Noah story, and Yonah, which is Hebrew for Jonah, is the primary character in our story for Yom Kippur. 

In so many ways, the Jonah story takes basic tropes of Noah and mirrors and reverses them, and spins out the tale in a new way that says, it doesn’t have to be so. There can be a different ending and a different message.

So let’s look a little more closely. In both stories, forty days are featured. It rains for forty days and nights in the Noah story. Jonah goes to Nineveh to threaten destruction forty days hence. And here is where we see how the stories are in conversation with each other. 

Jonah goes to Nineveh to threaten destruction in forty days, but instead of destruction, the threat is overturned because of sincere repentance. The conclusion is a reversal of the Noah story, where it rains and pours for forty days, obliterating all creation that Noah has not saved on his ark.

Both stories are more about a person than a prophecy. The total number of prophetic words delivered in both stories is five. Noah speaks not a word of prophecy, and Jonah speaks only five Hebrew words that translate to: “In forty days, the city of Nineveh will be overturned.” 

In the story of Noah, God didn’t tell Noah to preach repentance to people. Perhaps God thought the people weren’t capable of change, and God may have assumed Noah would say something and do more. But in the Book of Jonah, God not only tells Jonah to preach repentance, God clearly believes in the Ninevites’ capacity to change their ways and act more righteously. God has learned something between the time of the story of Noah and the story of Jonah. God has learned to do more and so gives specific instructions—specific words—for Jonah to say so that the Ninevites would change. 

But more than that, God believes humanity can change. In the Jonah story, God uses divine power not for punishment and destruction but for love and redemption. Jonah may not understand it, but his story affirms first and foremost, Judaism’s deeply held belief that real and significant change is possible.

If Nineveh can change, and God can change, then you and I, all of us, can change. We are neither too old, nor too set in our ways. All High Holy Day season, and especially on Yom Kippur, we work toward personal change through introspection.  If God can change, we too are capable of changing our ways and the directions in our lives that aren’t taking us to the right places for finding awe, deep meaning, and personal growth. 

You might think that the Jonah story ends with the prophet’s enlightenment and acceptance that in fact God was correct in sparing the Ninevites, but that’s not the case. After God accepts the Ninevites’ repentance and cancels their punishment, Jonah is angry, because he does not feel compassion or a connection to these people who have changed. Their fate doesn’t matter to him. While he’s not an example of how we want to act, he is a reminder that all of us at times are like Jonah; we don't see the fate of all humanity as being interconnected and intertwined. 

This poem by Yehuda Amichai, called The Place Where We Are Right, portrays a certain mindset that the prophet Jonah encompasses: 

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
in the spring

The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.

The Torah warns us not to circumcise our hearts, lest our hearts turn hard. Think of our ritual for the Ashamnu prayer, which we recite today. When we tap our heart, it’s like knocking on the door of our heart, so that our hearts will open up to hear the words and perspectives of others. It’s about allowing ourselves to take to heart the words and the pain of others and not to feel that we always have to be right. If not, we’re as closed off as Jonah and in a place where nothing can grow. 

But if we take the model of God and dwell where the soil is tilled, there can be creativity, openness, and growth. And that kind of growth can only come from vulnerability and allowing ourselves to soften, to lead with chesed, kindness, in all we do. When we open ourselves to possibilities, soften our hearts to each other and the world around us, then we create space for meaningful change. 

Cain yehi ratzon, so may this be God’s will.


Footnotes forthcoming.

Mon, June 24 2024 18 Sivan 5784